I was 21 years old and stationed at Elmendorf AFB and I had just completed the first year of a two-year tour. The shock over the loss of President John F. Kennedy was just beginning to subside and things were headed back towards normal. The Beatles descended on the music scene with a rush and long mop-head haircuts were becoming the rage with all the teenagers. I had just returned from a shopping trip to JC Penney where I’d picked up some new clothes. I had a date scheduled and I had hurried to the SAC/RAF mess hall to wolf down some dinner before returning to my barracks to put on those new clothes and make an evening of it. I had just sat down to eat when I felt a rumble in the floor. I knew immediately what it was, having been through a series of earthquakes in Kern County in 1952. I told everybody not to worry because the disturbance would pass quickly. It didn’t pass quickly. The floor began to shake and pitch back and forth and after one violent upheaval, all the tables and chairs slid to one end of the mess hall and smashed against the wall. Time to get out.
The mess hall was full and 95% of the troops were trying to exit the building through the same doors they used to enter and the foot-traffic jam made escape all but impossible. I caught sight of the exit door by the serving line and noticed that almost nobody was going out that way. That route got me out of the building, down the steps and face-to-face with one of the most terrifying sights I’ve ever encountered. The ground was pitching and rolling like the ocean in a storm. Ice about two feet thick covered the ground and it was ripping like cloth every time the ground moved. I nearly got motion sickness standing on dry land which is a dubious claim to fame. I tried to get away from the mess hall building because it was slapping against a barracks and looked like it might come apart. Walking was impossible at best so I tried to steady myself by hanging on to an automobile door handle. I remember that vehicle to this day. It was a silver Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon. Hanging on to the door handle was a futile attempt because that station wagon was bouncing, at least two feet off the ground. Time to get away.
Power poles were wagging back and forth, transformers were falling to the ground and electrical lines were breaking all over the area. After what seemed like hours, the quake subsided and I made my way up the stairs to my room on the third floor. I remember the smell as I opened the door. Several brands of after-shave had toppled out of the medicine chest and had broken when they smashed against the concrete floor. The place had never smelled so good nor looked so bad.
Minutes turned to hours involved with cleanup and hauling out broken glass, mopping up the liquid mess and putting the room back in order. And during all this, there was our unit’s mission that had to be maintained. We were on the clock 24/7 and there was work to be done. I remember one man, a fellow named Don Jensen, from one of the southern California beach cities, made his way to our operational headquarters, set equipment back at vertical, cleaned the place up and continued his assignment – – – all by himself. He received a well-deserved award for that action.
Aftershocks during the next few weeks kept us all on edge and during the next year, I counted the days one at a time until I could get out of there. I think the happiest sight ever was Anchorage in my rear view mirror as I pulled out at one minute after midnight on March 15, 1965. It had nothing to do with the city or the people because everyone up there was great but the memory of that earthquake/tsunami stayed with me for years. Being an original member of the 8.7 (now 9.2) club is a moniker I wish I’d been able to do without.
Vern W. Payne